Tag: Robert Greene

The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention

We are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests. The spacing effect is a far more effective way to learn and retain information that works with our brain instead of against it. Find out how to use it here.

“Every perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

— Gerald Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge

The most important metaskill you can learn is how to learn. Learning allows you to adapt. As Darwin hinted, it’s not the strongest who survives. It’s the one who easily adapts to a changing environment. Learning how to learn is a part of a “work smarter, not harder” approach to life—one that probabilistically helps you avoid becoming irrelevant. Your time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it on something which will just be forgotten.

During the school years, most of us got used to spending hours at a time memorizing facts, equations, the names of the elements, French verbs, dates of key historical events. We found ourselves frantically cramming the night before a test. We probably read through our notes over and over, a gallon of coffee in hand, in the hope that the information would somehow lodge in our brains. Once the test was over, we doubtless forgot everything straight away.1

Even outside of formal education, we have to learn large amounts of new information on a regular basis: foreign languages, technical terms, sale scripts, speeches, the names of coworkers. Learning through rote memorization is tedious and—more important—ineffective. If we want to remember something, we need to work with our brains, not against them. To do that, we need to understand cognitive constraints and find intelligent ways to get around them or use them to our advantage.

This is where the spacing effect comes in. It’s a wildly useful phenomenon: we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions. We can leverage this effect by using spaced repetition to slowly learn almost anything.

It works for words, numbers, images, and skills. It works for anyone of any age, from babies to elderly people. It works for animals, even species as simple as sea slugs. The effect cuts across disciplines and can be used to learn anything from artistic styles to mathematical equations.

Spaced repetition might not have the immediacy of cramming or the adrenaline rush of a manic all-nighter. But the information we learn from it can last a lifetime and tends to be effectively retained. In some ways, the spacing effect is a cognitive limitation, yet a useful one—if we are aware of it.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, Gabriel Wyner writes:

Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient. In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun.

In Mindhacker, Ron and Marty Hale-Evans explore further:

Our memory is simultaneously magnificent and pathetic. It is capable of incredible feats, yet it never works quite like we wish it would. Ideally, we would be able to remember everything instantly, but we are not computers. We hack our memory with tools like memory palaces, but such techniques required effort and dedication. Most of us give up, and outsource our memory to smartphones, cloud enabled computers, or plain old pen and paper. There is a compromise…a learning technique called spaced repetition which efficiently organizes information or memorization and retention can be used to achieve near perfect recall.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia

The Discovery of The Spacing Effect

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist and pioneer of quantitative memory research, first identified the spacing effect. After earning his PhD in Germany, he traveled to London. Like so many people, he found his life forever changed by a book.

The work in question was Elements of Psychophysics by the pioneering experimental psychologist Gustav Fechner. Inspired by this book, Ebbinghaus began the research into memory that would consume his career and impact all of us.

Ebbinghaus took up his new field of study with the unbridled zest of a newcomer. He didn’t believe strongly in the prevailing understanding of memory at the time. In his wish to avoid getting bogged down in theory, he made everything about experimentation. As researcher and the sole subject of his experiments, he faced an uphill battle.

His most important findings were in the areas of forgetting and learning curves. These are graphical representations of the process of learning and forgetting. The forgetting curve shows how a memory of new information decays in the brain,2 with the fastest drop occurring after 20 minutes and the curve leveling off after a day.

There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material. Persistence will allow us to recall with 100% accuracy all that we want to remember.

The learning curve is the inverse. It illustrates the rate at which we learn new information.

When we use spaced repetition, the forgetting curve changes:

Frequency matters. Under normal conditions, frequent repetitions aid memory. We know this intuitively. Just try to memorize this article on a single repetition. However much attention, focus, or individual ability you have, it won’t work.

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the material. Ebbinghaus observes, “Left to itself every mental content gradually loses its capacity for being revived, or at least suffers loss in this regard under the influence of time.” Cramming is not an effective memorization strategy. Lacking the robustness developed in later sessions, crammed facts soon vanish. Even something as important and frequently used as language can decay if not put into use.

There are other ways to improve memory. Intensity of emotion matters, as does the intensity of attention. Ebbinghaus notes in his definitive work on the subject, Memory and Forgetting:

Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present. The burnt child shuns the fire, and the dog which has been beaten runs from the whip, after a single vivid experience. People in whom we are interested we may see daily and yet not be able to recall the colour of their hair or of their eyes…Our information comes almost exclusively from the observation of extreme and especially striking cases.

Ebbinghaus also uncovered something extraordinary: even when we appear to have forgotten information, a certain quantity is stored in our subconscious minds. He referred to these memories as savings. While they cannot be consciously retrieved, they speed up the process of relearning the same information later on.

A poem is learned by heart and then not again repeated. We will suppose that after a half year it has been forgotten: no effort of recollection is able to call it back again into consciousness. At best only isolated fragments return. Suppose that the poem is again learned by heart. It then becomes evident that, although to all appearances totally forgotten, it still in a certain sense exists and in a way to be effective. The second learning requires noticeably less time or a noticeably smaller number of repetitions than the first. It also requires less time or repetitions than would now be necessary to learn a similar poem of the same length.

As the first researcher to undertake serious experimentation on memory and why we forget, Ebbinghaus transformed psychology as a new branch of science. His impact has been compared to that of Aristotle. Ongoing research into the spacing effect continues to support Ebbinghaus’s findings.

“There is no such thing as memorizing. We can think, we can repeat, we can recall and we can imagine, but we aren’t built to memorize. Rather our brains are designed to think and automatically hold onto what’s important. While running away from our friendly neighborhood tiger, we don’t think “You need to remember this! Tigers are bad! Don’t forget! They’re bad!” We simply run away, and our brain remembers for us.”

— Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It

How the Spacing Effect Works

Let’s take a quick refresher on what we know about how memory in works, because it’s not what we think.

Memories are not located in any one part of the brain. Memories are formed in a process which involves the entire brain. If you think about your favorite book, different parts of your brain will have encoded the look of it, the storyline, the emotions it made you feel, the smell of the pages, and so on. Memories are constructed from disparate components which create a logical whole. As you think about that book, a web of neural patterns pieces together a previously encoded image. Our brains are not like computers – we can’t just ‘tell’ ourselves to remember something.

In Mastery, Robert Greene explains:

In the end, an entire network of neurons is developed to remember this single task, which accounts for the fact we can still ride a bicycle years after we first learned how to do so. If we were to take a look at the frontal cortex of those who have mastered something through repetition, it would be remarkable still and inactive as they performed the skill. All their brain activity is occurring in areas that are lower down and required much less conscious control…People who do not practice and learn new skills can never gain a proper sense of proportion or self-criticism. They think they can achieve anything without effort and have little contact with reality. Trying something over and over again grounds you in reality, making you deeply aware of your inadequacies and of what you can accomplish with more work and effort.

No definitive answer has been found to explain how the spacing effect works. However, a number of factors are believed to help:

Forgetting and learning are, in a counterintuitive twist, linked. When we review close to the point of nearly forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory as well as add new details. This is one reason practice papers and teaching other people are the most effective ways for students to revise—they highlight what has been forgotten.

Retrieving memories changes the way they are later encoded. In essence, the harder something is to remember now, the better we will recall it in the future. The more we strain, which is painful mental labor, the easier it will be in the future. There is no learning without pain. Recall is more important than recognition. This explains why practice tests are a better way to learn than opening your text and re-reading your highlights.

Our brains assign greater importance to repeated information. This makes sense; information we encounter on a regular basis does tend to be more important than that which we only come across once. Disregarding any forms of mental impairment, we don’t have trouble recalling the information we need on a daily basis. Our PIN, our own telephone number, the directions to work, and names of coworkers, for example. We might once have struggled to remember them, but after accessing those sorts of information hundreds or thousands of time, recall becomes effortless.

Some researchers also believe that semantic priming is a factor. This refers to the associations we form between words which make them easier to recall. So, the sentence ‘the doctor and the nurse walked through the hospital’ is easier to remember than ‘the doctor and the artist walked through the supermarket’ because the words ‘doctor’ ‘nurse’ and ‘hospital’ are linked. If you are asked to remember a logical sentence such as ‘mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’, it’s not too difficult. If those same words are scrambled and become ‘cell the house mitochondria power is of’ it’s a lot harder to remember. And if those words are broken up into nonsensical syllables – ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ – retaining them would become arduous. But some researchers have theorised that repetition over time primes us to connect information. So, if you revised ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ enough times, you would start to connect ‘th’ and ‘ell.’ We can demonstrate semantic priming by telling a friend to say ‘silk’ ten times, then asking them what a cow drinks. They will almost certainly say ‘milk.’ The answer is, of course, water.

Yet another theory is that of deficient processing. Some literature points to the possibility that spaced repetition is not in itself especially efficient, but that massed learning is just very inefficient. By comparison, spaced repetition seems special when it is, in fact, a reflection of our true capabilities. Researchers posit that massed learning is redundant because we lose interest as we study information and retain less and less over time. Closely spaced repetition sessions leverage our initial interest before our focus wanes.

With properly spaced repetition, you increase the intervals of time between learning attempts. Each learning attempt reinforces the neural connections. For example, we learn a list better if we repeatedly study it over a period of time than if we tackle it in one single burst. We’re actually more efficient this way. Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session. Of course, when we’re bored we pay less and less attention.3

In Focused Determination, the authors explain why variety also contributes to deficient processing.

There is also minimal variation in the way the material is presented to the brain when it is repeatedly visited over a short time. This tends to decrease our learning. In contrast, when repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.

“How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

— John Medina, Brain Rules

Taking Advantage of the Spacing Effect

We don’t learn about spaced repetition in school—something which baffles many researchers. Most classes teach a single topic per session, then don’t repeat it until the test.

Going over a topic once teaches very little—sometimes nothing at all, if the teacher is unengaging or the class is too long. Most teachers expect their students to take care of the memorizing part themselves. As a result, many of us develop bad learning habits like cramming to cope with the demands of our classes.

We need to break up with cramming and focus on what actually works: spaced repetition.

The difficulty of spaced repetition is not effort but that it requires forward planning and a small investment of time to set up a system. But in the long run, it saves us time as we retain information and spend less total time learning.

A typical spaced repetition system includes these key components:

  • A schedule for review of information. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
  • A means of storing and organizing information. Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are the most common options. Software has the obvious advantage of requiring little effort to maintain, and of having an inbuilt repetition schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process.
  • A metric for tracking progress. Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement. This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on. Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement.
  • A set duration for review sessions. If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information. Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion. A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes, with a break before any other review sessions.

The spacing effect is a perfect example of how much more effective we can be if we understand how our minds work, and use them in an optimal way. All you need to learn something for life are flashcards and a schedule. Then, of course, you’re free to move on to actually applying and using what you’ve learned.

Footnotes
  • 1

    When is the last time you used a2+ b2= c2 in real life?

  • 2

    This is different than the half-life of knowledge, the process by which information in memory becomes less valuable because your understanding of the world has changed.

  • 3

    You can test this by asking yourself what your last meeting yesterday was about.

How to Remember What You Read

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?

The answer is simple but not easy.

It’s not what they read. It’s how they read. Good reading habits not only help you read more but help you read better.

Active Vs. Passive Readers

Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read. Another difference between these two types of readers is how the quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you’re an active reader, however, things are different.

The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. Active readers learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. Active readers make better decisions because they know how to get the world to do the bulk of the work for them. Active readers avoid problems. Active readers have another advantage: The more they read the faster they read.

Think back to the books you studied in school. Despite the passage of time, most us remember a lot about them. Even if the details are fuzzy, we can doubtless recall the basic plots, main characters, notable themes, and motifs. Why? Well for one, we didn’t just passively read those books. We actively read them complete with class discussions where we took turns reading parts aloud, acted out scenes, or maybe even watched film adaptations. No matter how long it has been since we set foot in a classroom, we all probably remember Animal Farm.

Effective Reading Habits

Having a deliberate strategy to get better at anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. While we might spend a lot of time reading and consuming information, few of us consciously improve the effectiveness of our reading.

To get the most out of each book we read it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into action the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will show you how to get maximum benefit from every single page you read.

First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here’s what I know:

  • Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you’ll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.
  • Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.
  • Book summary services miss the point. A lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with exactly zero experience in the subject matter of the book. This misses the point of not only reading but how we learn.
  • Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)
  • Don’t read stuff we find boring. 
  • Finishing the book is optional. You should start a lot of books and only finish a few of them.

“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something’.”

— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters way more than you think.

Filter Your Reading

There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don’t have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. In fact, there’s an advantage to be gained from reading things other people are not reading. This isn’t school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.

The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.

For older books or those that have been translated, check which version is considered to be the best. For example, the Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is regarded as being truest to the original text, while also having a modern (accessiable) feel.

Get Some Context

A good place to start is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books – for example, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Palm Wine Drinkard – have a very different meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author.

For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context. Some helpful questions to ask include:

  • Why did the author write this? (Did they have an agenda?)
  • What is their background?
  • What else have they written?
  • Where was it written?
  • What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?
  • Has the book been translated or reprinted?
  • Did any important events — a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership, the emergence of new technology — happen during the writing of the book?

Know Your Why

What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don’t know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?

You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don’t just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.

Intelligent Skimming

Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside the jacket to get an idea of the subject matter.  (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you’ve read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.

Match the Book to Your Environment

Although it’s not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.

When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it. It’s up to you to find that book.

For example:

  • Traveling or on holiday? Match your book to the location — Jack Kerouac or John Muir for America; Machiavelli for Italy; Montaigne’s Essays, Ernest Hemingway, or Georges Perec for France; and so on. Going nowhere in particular? Read Vladimir Nabokov or Henry Thoreau.
  • Dealing with grief? Read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Torch by Cheryl Strayed, or anything by Tarah Brach.
  • Having a crisis about your own mortality? (It happens to us all.) Read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life.
  • Dealing with adversity? Lose your job? Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
  • Dissatisfied with your work? Read Linchpin by Seth Godin, Mastery by Robert Greene, or Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

If I were a Dr., I’d prescribe books. They can be just as powerful as drugs.

Remembering What You Read

You’ll remember more of what you read if you do the following seven things while you’re reading.

Take Notes

Making notes is an important foundation for reflecting and integrating what you read into your mind.

The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. While there are hundreds of systems on the internet, you need to take one of them and adapt it until you have your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.

Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?

In The 3 Secrets That Help Me Write and Think, Robert Greene describes his notetaking process this way:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes … on the side.

After I am done reading I will often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards.

David Foster Wallace recommends a similar form of active reading (for more, see Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing):

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on. It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh that was pretty good…” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

As you are reading, a book, write your chapter summary right at the end of the chapter. If your reading session is over, this helps synthesize what you just read. When you pick up the book tomorrow start by reading the previous two chapter summaries to help prime your mind to where you are in the book.

Stay Focused

Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author.

Referring to the time before the internet, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

If you’re struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed or bored.

Mark Up the Book

Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I’ve spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.

In fact, go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading.

Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. Some people recommend making your own index of key pages or using abbreviations (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language, for example).

The first time you write in a book can be unnerving, but in the long term, it leads to a rich understanding and a sense of connection with the author.

Billy Collins has written a beautiful poem on the joys of marginalia: “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen if only to show / we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; / we pressed a thought into the wayside / planted an impression along the verge. /… ‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.'”

Build a Vivid Mental Picture

Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.

Make Mental Links

Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.

Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows:

The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.

Keep Mental Models in Mind

Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:

  • Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)
  • Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
  • Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)
  • Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?
  • Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
  • Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?
  • Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.
  • Social proof: How is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.
  • Narrative instinct: Is the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts. In The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, Hayden White explains our tendency to meld history into a narrative: “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent… narrative is a metacode, a human universal… Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of story… This value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? And does the world, even the social world, ever really come to us as already narrativized, already “speaking itself” from beyond the horizon of our capacity to make scientific sense of it? Or is the fiction of such a world, a world capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable?”
  • Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.
  • Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?

Stop When Bored

As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.

As Schopenhauer once wrote, “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book.

Nancy Pearl advocates the Rule of 50. This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you are really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it’s not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know… When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book…When you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.

“The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

The Learning Process

Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. No idea could be further from the turth.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don’t make time to think about what you’ve read, your conclusions will be shaky.

One of the reasons that we read books is because they offer a rich tapestry of details allowing us to see the world as the author and go on the journey as they make connections and reflect. This allows our brains to learn not only the author’s abstractions but to learn when those abstractions are likely to work and when they are likely to fail (thanks to the vast amount of details).

Apply What You’ve Learned

So, you’ve finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don’t just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.

Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn’t it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you’ve read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.

Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind. This is part of the Feynman technique.

Upon completing a book, grab the nearest (willing) person and tell them about what you have learned. You’ll have to remove or explain the jargon, describe why this information has meaning, and walk them through the author’s logic. It sounds simple. After you try it the first time, you’ll realize it’s not easy.

If there is no one around who is interested, try talking to yourself. That’s what I do … but maybe I’m crazy.

And if that doesn’t work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit or anywhere else where people are likely to be interested.

One of the benefits of our virtual reading group is that people are forced to actually think about what they are learning. We ask weekly questions on the assigned reading, and responses are diverse and thoughtful. The jargon goes away and people remove blind spots. It’s incredible to watch. The result is that after reading a book with us, people say “I’ve retained so much more than I would have if I did it on my own.”

It was Schopenhauer who said, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” To escape this, you need to reflect on your views and see how they stand up to feedback.

Make Your Notes Searchable

There are endless ways of organizing your notes – by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn’t matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.

Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.

As General Mattis wrote: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

The options for cataloguing your notes include:

  • A box of index cards, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading. Index cards can be moved around.
  • A commonplace book (again, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading).
  • A digital system, such as Evernote, OneNote, or plain old Microsoft Word. Digital systems have the added benefit of being searchable, which can save a lot of time if you refer to your notes on a regular basis.

Schedule time to read and review these notes.

Reread (If Necessary)

Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.

Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

There’s no better way to finish this article than with the wise words of Henry Thoreau:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

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The Trojan Horse: How Marketers, Retailers, and Artists Conceal Their True Intents

“Image: The Trojan Horse. Your guile is hidden inside a magnificent gift that proves irresistible to your opponent. The walls open. Once inside, wreak havoc.”
— Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power

***

The Basics

The story of the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most famous of all the Greek myths.

The Trojan War had been going on for a decade, with no end in sight and many Greek heroes dying, when Odysseus came up with an idea that won the war for the Greeks.

Because the Trojans considered horses to be sacred, the Greeks built a large, hollow wooden horse. To make it even more irresistible, they used wood from Cornel trees (also sacred) to construct it. Odysseus and a group of men hid inside while the rest of the Greek army pretended to leave the area, destroying their camp and boarding their ships.

After some debate as to whether the Greeks could be trusted, the Trojans dragged the giant horse inside the walls of the city. The end of the ten-year siege was a huge relief to the people of Troy, who spent the night celebrating.

By midnight, everyone was in a drunken stupor. Odysseus then acted, signaling to the Greek fleet to return and leading his men out of the Trojan Horse to kill the unsuspecting guards and open the doors. The Greeks then had access to the city. They massacred the Trojans, keeping a few alive as slaves. Some of the soldiers traveled further afield, forming settlements which are supposed to have led to the creation of Rome.

Ancient Greeks saw this myth as factual, with the events occurring between 1300–1200 BC in the area near Dardanelles.

There is some archeological evidence for the existence of Troy, although most historians now accept that the story is mythological. There is probably still some basis in actual events, as sieges were common during that era.

Myth or not, the fact that the story of the Trojan Horse has survived for over 3,000 years indicates its power and utility as a mental model.

Why, exactly, has this particular story retained its grip on our imagination for so long?

We can only speculate as to why. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Trojan Horse is not just a story. It’s also a parable, a metaphor, an invitation to be ingenious, an example of out-of-the-box thinking.

Reading it has sparked so many ideas for so many people. It is at once practical and bizarre.

Using it as a mental model, we can apply the Trojan Horse story to an array of disciplines and situations. As a concept, it can be used for both good and evil.

The Trojan Horse in Marketing and Business

We live in an era when we are all besieged by marketing messages every moment of the day. Like the Trojans hiding in their city, we have learned to shut these messages out — we use advertisement blockers, throw away junk mail unopened, ignore billboards, and filter out spam emails.

In order to gain our attention, marketers often use a technique similar to the Trojan Horse. They offer people an apparent gift — a free ebook, a discount card, a sample. Only once this item has been enjoyed can its real purpose can be enacted.

A good heuristic when things seem too good to be true is to just forget about them.

Many marketing lessons can be found in the original myth.

The Greeks chose a form which appealed to their targets, using a sacred creature and type of wood. Likewise, marketers must fit their gift to the audience, making it appealing to their basic interests. The Greeks used innovative thinking, inventing a tactic which was new and therefore unexpected. If they had tried the same thing again, it would have had no effect.

Once a marketing technique is recognizable, its impact wanes. No one is going to click on a “5 ways to kill belly fat” pop-up anymore, or fall for an email from a Nigerian prince telling you just how much money you left there, or enjoy a free executable file that will clean your computer. These ruses are now well known and we ignore them. But when these techniques were new and unfamiliar, huge numbers of people were attracted by the offers.

Some examples of Trojan Horse marketing include:

  • Offering the first chapter of a book for free to people who join an email list — Having read the chapter and received more emails which connect them to the author, people are more likely to buy the full book than they would have been if they had only seen an advert.
  • Creating free high-quality blog content for an audience to enjoy — Once people are interested in the blogger’s voice and expertise, the marketing can begin. Many people will at some point want to support the person whose work they have been consuming for free. This support might include buying courses, books, or consulting services or donating to a Patreon page. We developed the learning community as not only a bunch of extras for people but also a means to support the free content we provide.
  • Writing a book detailing an expert’s specialized knowledge — While sales of the book are often not high, having it published benefits the expert’s business. For example, Ryan Holiday has stated that his books have led to more income from speaking and consulting than from actual book sales.
  • Making the most income from revenue streams which do not appear to be the main objective of a business — For example, high-fashion brands often make more money from perfume than from clothing, cinemas rely on sales of popcorn and drinks, and some restaurants profit predominantly from sales of alcohol.
  • Creating viral branded content which people share and engage with due to its being interesting and often amusing — For example, just try to watch the Android “Friends Furever” video without forwarding it to at least one person. The adorable video wraps up a marketing message, making people more likely to pay attention to it.

In his book Permission Marketing, Seth Godin discusses the idea under a different name. When you let people into your inbox, you’re letting people into your city. They might be there for good or bad reasons; it’s hard to know in advance. In a blog post, Godin explains how the concept works:

Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal, and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

It recognizes the new power of the best consumers to ignore marketing. It realizes that treating people with respect is the best way to earn their attention.

Pay attention is a key phrase here, because permission marketers understand that when someone chooses to pay attention they are actually paying you with something precious…

Real permission works like this: if you stop showing up, people complain, they ask where you went…

Permission is like dating. You do not start by asking for the sale at first impression. You earn the right, over time, bit by bit…

In order to get permission, you make a promise. You say, “I will do x, y and z, I hope you will give me permission by listening.” And then, this is the hard part, that’s all you do. You do not assume you can do more. You do not sell the list or rent the list or demand more attention…

In the book, Godin explains how Amazon has used permission marketing to build an empire:

Using permission, Amazon can fundamentally reconfigure the entire book industry, disintermediating and combining every step of the chain until there are only two: the writer and Amazon … Amazon appears to be building a permission asset, not a brand asset.

Amazon began by offering cheap books. Once people fell for that initial Trojan Horse, Amazon offered them other products and gradually captured more and more of their online spending. Services such as Prime, Echo, and Kindle are contained within the Trojan Horse — that first cheap purchase someone makes.

Just as the Greeks invested effort into building the horse, Amazon has invested millions in technology and infrastructure. This is the essence of Trojan Horse marketing: offering a gift (with Amazon, this includes free trials, discounts, and generally low costs for popular items) and then upselling and upselling and upselling.

On the topic of Amazon Prime, John Warrillow writes:

Like many subscription models, Amazon Prime is a Trojan horse that is expanding the list of products consumers are willing to buy from Amazon and giving the eggheads in Seattle a mountain of customer data to sift through.

The Trojan Horse and the Benjamin Franklin Effect

Let’s say there is a person who dislikes you — a lot. It’s fine; this happens to all of us.

But what if you need to form an allegiance with this person? Or maybe they don’t dislike you, they just don’t know you. Either way, you need to build a relationship with them.

What should you do? Ask them out for coffee, offer a gift, ask someone for an email introduction?

One solution is to utilize the Benjamin Franklin effect, essentially a sort of Trojan Horse approach to building relationships.

The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon in which we begin to like people we have done favors for. Essentially, the initial favor is the Trojan Horse, containing within it a relationship. Franklin’s original story, told in his autobiography, details how he used this during his time as a legislator:

Having heard that he [a rival who disliked Franklin] had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour.

When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death.

We can use Franklin’s technique as a Trojan Horse to gain the respect, friendship, and cooperation of other people.

Asking someone for a favor indicates that we already respect them and consider them to have something we lack — a form of flattery which serves as the gift. Once they have accepted this and performed the favor, it can be leveraged.

Examples of the conjunction between the Benjamin Franklin effect and the Trojan Horse include:

  • Salesmen use the foot-in-the-door technique. This involves making a small request (for example, filling in a survey), then trying to sell you something.
  • If someone you know has a particular area of expertise, try texting or emailing them (rather than Googling it) whenever you have a related question. One Reddit user on r/LifeProTips recommends texting your mother simple questions on a regular basis to strengthen the relationship. Doing so indicates to people that we consider them knowledgeable, making them more likely to respond to larger requests.

Robert Greene also recommends a number of Trojan Horse–style tactics in The 48 Laws of Power, concealing true intentions within a facade and using specific behavior to achieve goals.

Use selective honesty and judgment to disarm … One sincere and honest move will cover over dozens of dishonest ones. Open-hearted gestures of honesty and generosity bring down the guard of even the most suspicious people. Once your selective honesty opens a hole in their armor, you can deceive and manipulate them at will. A timely gift—a Trojan horse—will serve the same purpose.

In The 33 Strategies of War, Greene returns to the same analogy:

[B]efriend your enemies, worming your way into their hearts and minds. As your targets’ friend, you will naturally learn their needs and insecurities, the soft interior they try so hard to hide. The guard will come down with a friend. And even later on, when you play out your treacherous intentions, the lingering resonance of your friendship will still confuse them, letting you keep on manipulating them by toying with their emotions or pushing them into overreactions. For a more immediate effect, you can try a sudden act of kindness and generosity that gets people to lower their defenses—the Trojan Horse strategy. …

When confronted by something difficult or thorny, do not be distracted or discouraged by its formidable outer appearance; think your way into the soft core, the center from which the problem blossoms… Knowing the problem’s core gives you great power to change it from the inside out. Your first thought must always be to infiltrate the center… never to whale away at the periphery or just pound at the walls.

How Artists Change Your Mind

Botticelli primavera

Many artists (a term used here to denote anyone who creates something, not just those who paint canvases) have used their work to conceal important agendas.

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Conor Oberst wrap political and social messages within beautiful music.

Bloggers such as Seth Godin and James Altucher envelop key life lessons and paradigm-altering concepts within humorous anecdotes and metaphors. The women who embroidered the Bayeux Tapestry added their own subtle views to the panoramas of war and victory.

Companies such as Toms, Ben & Jerry, and Lush use the popularity of their products to fund real change. Johannes Vermeer’s most serene paintings tell complex, taboo narratives.

Botticelli’s La Primavera (above) is actually an exploration of his interest in horticulture, not a study of human figures.

Consider Gatsby, throwing lavish parties with the sole purpose of attracting Daisy back to him. This is the essence of much of art — an attractive and appealing exterior conceals the true purpose.

People use whatever means are available to them to express their views and attitudes. Sometimes this is intentional; sometimes the Trojan Horse is built unconsciously. The purpose is to get a message across in a form which is palatable to people.

Few of us enjoy or engage with straightforward expressions of a particular agenda. But when it comes in an interesting form, we pull the wooden horse within the city walls with glee. Just as with marketing messages, we have become desensitized to these sorts of messages. Artists must now use ingenuity and creativity to spread their ideas.

As Walter Hamady writes:

The book as a structure is the Trojan horse of art — it is not feared by average people. It is a familiar form in the world, and average people will take it from you and examine it whereas a painting, poem, sculpture, or print they will not.

This concept of art as a Trojan Horse is extremely important.

Farnam Street itself serves as a Trojan Horse. Our intention is to spread an appreciation of the importance of clear thinking, lifelong learning, making good decisions and living a meaningful life.

If upon your first visit to this site, you had found nothing but a list of instructions, the chances are high that you would have ignored it and never returned. Through the use of stories, analogies and careful explorations of important ideas, this agenda has reached and inspired many people. When you read a post about a military tactic or the life of a historic figure, the purpose is not the narrative alone. It is about much more than that — a way of changing how people think.

In Contagious, Jonah Berger explains the power of stories as a Trojan Horse:

People don’t just share information, they tell stories. But just like the epic tale of the Trojan Horse, stories are vessels that carry things such as morals and lessons. Information travels under the guise of what seems like idle chatter. So, we need to build our own Trojan horses, embedding our products and ideas in stories that people want to tell… we need to make our message so integral to the narrative that people can’t tell the story without it.

Francis T. Marchese also advocates the Trojan Horse approach to art:

The Trojan Horse is an artifact that possesses a host of hidden agendas. Rather than presenting a one-off manifestation, the Trojan Horse offers many platoons, capable of strategically addressing the wider culture, pointing to replicable solutions through demonstration. Thus, an artwork acting like a Trojan Horse can contain the seeds of multiple strategic outcomes.

In short, when we want to spread an idea or spark change, we would do well to learn from the ancient Greeks.

People have strong defenses against anything which challenges their worldviews. By packaging it in a format which appeals to them, we can pass on meaning. Artists, marketers, and politicians (among others) have long realized the importance of this approach. It is a means of injecting our ideas, both good and bad, into people’s worlds through an apparent gift.

Footnotes
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    Trojan Horse Image via PBS.

5 Books That Will Change Your Life

Reading is important to me. Not only is it one way to fill in the gaps left by my formal education but it is a meaningful way to better myself. Reading alone, however, isn’t enough. What you read and how you apply it matters. In the past year, I started reading over 300 books and finished 161 of them.

Reading what everyone else reads is good for conversation, perhaps, but it’s not going to help you to think differently. And if you can’t think differently, you’re always going to be a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.

With that in mind, here are five books that will change your life and enable you to see things in a new light.

1. Collected Maxims and Other Reflections by La Rochefoucauld
La Rochefoucauld’s critical and pithy analysis of human behavior won’t soon be forgotten. A list of people influenced by his maxims include Nietzsche, Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, and Conan Doyle. “The reader’s best policy,” Rochefoucauld suggests, “is to assume that none of these maxims is directed at him, and that he is the sole exception. …. After that, I guarantee that he will be the first to subscribe to them.”

2. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
I’ve never read this book in a cover-to-cover sense but I’ve read each of the laws. More than that, I’ve broken each of the laws. I’ll give you an example. The first law is “Never outshine the master.” Once I worked directly for a CEO. I worked as hard as I ever have to show off my talents and skills and at every turn it backfired over and over again. The lesson — “make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.” I wish I read this book earlier in my career, it certainly would have been helpful.

3. Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War by Xenophon
This book sat on my shelf for a year before I picked it up recently. This is the biography of Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, who made the oldest known declaration of human rights. The book is full of leadership lessons. Here’s an example. “Brevity is the soul of command. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively and to the point–and couch your desires in such natural logic that no one can raise objections. Then move on.”

4. Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
This no nonsense collection of 20 letters from a self-made man to his son are nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned. This is a great example of timeless wisdom. The broad theme is how to raise your children in a world where they have plenty but the lessons apply to parents and non-parents alike.

5. Models of my Life by Herbert Simon
An autobiography of Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, a remarkable polymath who more people should know about. In an age of increasing specializing, he’s a rare generalist — applying what he learned as a scientist to other aspects of his life. Crossing disciplines, he was at the intersection of “information sciences.” He won the Nobel for his theory of “bounded rationality,” and is perhaps best known for his insightful quote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

And one more… just for good luck.

6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Ok, this is a bonus pick as I figured a many of you might have read this already. It was, after all, on the 2013 Farnam Street reader’s choice list. If you bought it and haven’t read it, consider this a nudge. The best way to sum up this book is: A simple and powerful guide to life. This book was never intended for publication it was for himself. How many people write a book of epigrams to themselves? Get it. Read it. Live it.

Robert Greene: The Two Kinds of Failure and Why They Matter

“It is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt.
You will fail to question the element of luck.”

***

This excellent passage from Robert Greene‘s book Mastery explains the two different kinds of failure and the implications of each.

Think of it this way: There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done. In fact, it is a curse to have everything go right on your first attempt. You will fail to question the element of luck, making you think that you have the golden touch. When you do inevitably fail, it will confuse and demoralize you past the point of learning. In any case, to apprentice as an entrepreneur you must act on your ideas as early as possible, exposing them to the public, a part of you even hoping that you’ll fail. You have everything to gain.

I understand the fear of failure because, like everyone, I’m afraid of failing too.

I rarely fail for the first reason, I often fail for the second reason. And I’ve failed a lot.

I’ve failed when pushing myself to my physical limits. I’ve failed pushing myself to my cognitive limits. I’ve failed publicly, humiliating myself. I’ve failed privately in ways that people will never know.

What scares me more than failure is not trying. I can live with failure. I can’t live with not trying. The former allows me to sleep, the latter keeps me awake.

If you liked this check out these other articles:

It’s not the failure that defines you, but rather how you respond.

Five techniques to improve your luck.

 

“That’s as far as they go. They can’t take it any further. And why not? Because they won’t put in the effort”

A brilliant passage from Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood on talent.

There just happen to be people like that. They’re blessed with this marvelous talent, but they can’t make the effort to systematize it. They end up squandering it in little bits and pieces. I’ve seen my share of people like that. At first you think they’re amazing. Like, they can sight-read some terrifically difficult piece and do a damn good job playing it all the way through. You see them do it, and you’re overwhelmed. You think, ‘I could never do that in a million years.’ But that’s as far as they go. They can’t take it any further. And why not? Because they won’t put in the effort. Because they haven’t had the discipline pounded into them. They’ve been spoiled. They have just enough talent so they’ve been able to play things well without any effort and they’ve had people telling them how great they are from the time they’re little, so hard work looks stupid to them. They’ll take some piece another kid has to work on for three weeks and polish it off in half the time, so the teacher figures they’ve put enough into it and lets them go to the next thing. And they do that in half the time and go on to the next piece. They never find out what it means to be hammered by the teacher; they lose out on a certain element required for character building. It’s a tragedy.

This sounds an awful lot like Carol Dweck

In her influential research, (Carol) Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

And this bit from The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance:

Children who are “entity theorists” … are prone to use language like ‘I am smart at this.’ And to attribute their success or failure to an ingrained and unalterable level of ability. They see their overall intelligence or skill level at a certain discipline to be a fixed entity, a thing that cannot evolve. Incremental theorists, who have picked up a different modality of learning, are more prone to describe their results with sentences like ‘I got it because I worked very hard at it’ or ‘I should have tried harder.’ A child with a learning theory of intelligence tends to sense that with hard work, difficult material can be grasped- step-by-step, incrementally, the novice can become the master.

This is the path of amateurs:

By nature, we humans shrink from anything that seems possibly painful or overtly difficult. We bring this natural tendency to our practice of any skill. Once we grow adept at some aspect of this skill, generally one that comes more easily to us, we prefer to practice this element over and over. Our skill becomes lopsided as we avoid our weaknesses. Knowing that in our practice we can let down our guard, since we are not being watched or under pressure to perform, we bring to this a kind of dispersed attention. We tend to also be quite conventional in our practice routines. We generally follow what others have done, performing the accepted exercises for these skills.

This is the path of amateurs. To attain mastery, you must adopt what we shall call Resistance Practice. The principle is simple—you go in the opposite direction of all of your natural tendencies when it comes to practice.

If you want to get better at anything, you need to practice.